Creative ROW maintenance paints a glowing utility portrait

By Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

Right-of-way (ROW) maintenance has traditionally been viewed as a dull necessity to maintain reliability-one filled with conversations about herbicides and growth rates. The modern ROW, however, can be molded to fill a new niche for deregulated utilities: branding themselves as a positive influence in the community.

Ron Cornish, customer agronomist, industrial vegetation management business and Jake Secor, leader of state government and public affairs-both with Dow AgroSciences-believe that a modern utility should take advantage of the opportunities that an environmentally friendly ROW can offer.

In an interview with EL&P, they spoke of the growing trend of partnerships with wildlife and community organizations to maintain ROWs.

“The concept of a biodiverse right-of-way has always been around; it simply took awhile to get that mindset into the utility itself,” Cornish stated, adding that biodiverse ROW partnerships have increased in popularity over the last ten years.

“Deregulation is dictating that utilities operate under a different business scenario than they had in the past, and partnerships with local environmental groups like Quail Unlimited create win-win situations for utilities,” Cornish said. “They get the maintainable brush they need, as well as positive recognition in the community.”

Randy Canady, marketing manager with BASF agrees. The Project Habitat wildlife enhancement program, which the company sponsors, has been growing by leaps and bounds since its 1995 inception, and community branding is one of the reasons for that growth.

“We know that most utilities today have an image campaign,” Canady told EL&P. “They want to be perceived as a neighbor, as a friend.”

Whatever the environment wants, the environment gets

“Utilities are beginning to realize that it’s not just the fact that they deliver power-but just how they deliver that power-that differentiates them, that makes them a corporate citizen,” Canady added. “Campaigns like Project Habitat help them in that arena, and, as we see more urban encroachment, we’re forcing more wildlife into non-natural areas, including right-of-ways.”

Cornish and Secor also pointed out that in some cases-as with a western utility partnership with a group entitled Butterflies Forever-proper ROW maintenance can increase a rare or endangered species population. Gainesville Regional Utilities has qualified under the State of Florida’s Division of Forestry as a stewardship forest; Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) has its own environmental stewardship team, which looks to establish wild turkey and butterfly habitats on ROWs. In fact, due to wildlife concerns, Pepco refrains from mowing between April 15 and August 15 each year to minimize impact on young animals. Both utilities were awarded with Dow AgroSciences Lines of Distinction award in 2001 for their efforts, as well as being recognized by Project Habitat.

“EnergyUnited discovered an endangered sunflower on its right-of-way, protected the flower and are using that environmental success to promote themselves through communication in their newsletters and such,” Canady added.

Secor stated that modern ROW maintenance needs to expand beyond the borders of herbicides to reflect actions like those taken by Pepco and EnergyUnited. “We try to work with citizen groups, with regulators, with state officials to develop environmental programs with excellent stewardship,” he stated.

Old vs. new

Traditionally, ROW maintenance has centered around one major activity: mowing. Canady pointed out that the mowed acre does have one major advantage: It has immediate and visible results. However, mowing is disruptive to both the environment and the community, leading utilities to today’s more biodiverse approach.

And while Cornish and Secor admitted that partnerships and biodiverse ROWs have the potential to be more expensive up front, they believe that the long run holds the promise of leveling out those costs, while giving the utility added community branding.

“These folks [with the utility] are part of the community; they want the community to appreciate their efforts,” Cornish added.

“The costs of this approach are consistent with what utilities are already using for image campaigns,” BASF’s Canady stated. “We have heard back loud and clear that it has value. Some utilities use it proactively, and some utilities simply keep it in a drawer-so to speak-and they wait for something to hit. Then the Project Habitat angle gets them out of a jam, letting them use it reactively. In that sense, it’s a cost savings.”

Cornish and Secor can be contacted via Robyn Heine (RHeine@dowagro.com). Canady can be contacted via Kristin Campbell (KCampbell@dudnyk.com).

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